Experiments in Electrocution

This post was inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Southern Grimoire. The host, KD Burr, was talking about the topic of necromancy and one anecdote in particular caught my attention: the use of electricity to “raise the dead.”

The book I’m working on takes place in 1914 Butte, Montana. Butte and its copper reserves, as you may know, helped literally light up the United States. The experiments Burr talks about, however, took place at the dawn of the 19th century when electricity was something new and mysterious.

The First Experimenter

Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician and physicist, is largely credited as discovering animal electricity. He began his studies in comparative anatomy, later moving into physiology. These interests lended themselves to his study of electrophysiology. By the late 1770s he was using electricity to stimulate muscles, in particular those of frogs. In 1786, he was able to elicit a muscular contraction in a frog by touching its nerves with a pair of scissors during a storm. Such use of electrical stimulation came to be known as galvanism.

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took his uncle’s experiments even further. He decided he’d rig up the decapitated heads of oxen to a contraption that would send volts of electricity through the poor animals. The electricity would cause the heads to jerk and twist and make weird faces. Then, even more disturbingly, he moved onto humans–allegedly the heads of executed criminals. He wrote of his experiments, “… I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eyelids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”

Onto Bodies…

By 1818, chemist Andrew Ure became obsessed with reviving the dead. With two metallic rods charged by a voltaic battery connected to various nerves, the body–again of an executed criminal–convulsed and shuddered. “When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”

This was two years after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which, fun fact, never mentioned electricity specifically as the means to reanimate the monster. Instead she wrote “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

Electricity and doctors today

Even so, the culture was ripe with inspiration for Shelley. But, as with many things, public opinion shifted and the use of electricity on humans ceased. The experiments did, however, lead to discoveries such as defibrillation, or the use of electric shock to restart the heart, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT was, and still is, used to treat certain mental disorders such as severe depression. A shock is sent through the patient’s brain, causing a seizure and changing the brain’s chemistry. It’s argued, though, that ECT is nothing more than another form of lobotomy.

As for reanimating the dead, new research has led scientists away from electricity and into the realm of the microscopic. Doctors have found that by cooling the bodies of the recently deceased to 91 degrees, cell death is slowed. Once the body is warmed (slowly), the person’s chance of survival increases. Is it the same thing as electrocuting a body to bring it back to life? No. But it’s still a form of reanimation…and still creepy.

Just a little Halloween knowledge nugget!

Resources Used for this Post: 

Inside Science    Mysterious Universe    Atlas Obscura     Britannica           

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